It was a year when genre movies trumped “important” prestige films. How do I list these anyway? My method is, the closer you get to number #1, the more exhilarating the movie was to me. In some years the real important movies are the ones that entertain the hell out of you. These are my eternal classics:
BEST OF 2009
1. Paranormal Activity – It contains some of my most vivid memories inside a movie theater, too. If you think like I do then you will agree that “The Shining” and “The Exorcist” are on Tier One as the greatest horror films ever made. “Paranormal” can now take the lead at the top of Tier Two. Taking place entirely inside a San Diego home where one boyfriend records infinitely with his video camera toy and a girlfriend haunted by the unknown, the film slowly creeps on you until it builds to unrelieved terror. As a result, the loudest screams in a movie theater you’ve heard in years if you were lucky enough to see this in a packed house. The fact that the best film of the year was principally made for $11,000 goes to say that if you live long enough you will eventually find something to surprise you. Yet there certainly must be a reason why the film rattles your nervous system so effectively. It has a way of tapping into fears that you thought were long dormant, and then extrapolating them. In a word: Primal.
2. Departures (Japan) – Exquisite. This Japanese film touched my heart more than any other this year, containing scenes that I am forever grateful for. While it initially stirred me upon my first viewing, I had no idea how much I really loved it until I reviewed the similarly themed but vacuous “My Sister’s Keeper” two months later. Failed cellist Diago is a nokanshi, a man who performs ceremonial washing of corpses before their burial. It remains uplifting and spiriting even despite its cadaverous theme possibly because it honors and cherishes the memory of the dead, while soothing the hearts of the living. This is really the great Japanese film of the last decade. Even the music is deep.
3. Inglorious Basterds – Quentin Tarantino, giving good name to agonizing suspense as well as to stylistic homage, compiled a perfect cast for an awesome assembly of characters in this boyhood fantasy of American G.I.’s kicking Nazi ass in a fictional WWII. This is our inner subconscious boy’s dream: To slaughter the hell out of Nazis that were unfit to walk the earth. The opening sequence between Colonel Landa (Christoph Waltz, the best villain Q.T. has ever created) and the French farmer is the best written sequence this year or perhaps in many years. Never before has there been a movie character that has used ingratiating qualities to such powerful, ironically menacing effect. Following repeat viewings, Melanie Laurent is the one now that leaves me salivating with her poised and brainy blonde integrity. And Brad Pitt is hysterical as a southern natural born killer.
4. Observe and Report – Director Jody Hill is a real wild card: Who knows if its too early yet to say that his bad taste is justifiable, but this particular film is badass. Categorically a black comedy, comparable to Martin Scorsese’s “The King of Comedy,” by some others compared to “Taxi Driver.” One of those films you can’t see its greatness for certain until you’ve seen it two, three, maybe five times. As long as you believe that a comedy isn’t required to have likeable characters then you will be knocked punch-drunk by Seth Rogen’s bi-polar mall cop. Here is a guy who honestly and truly believes that his anti-social behavior is social normalcy. Second endorsement: Tarantino praised it as one of his faves of the year.
5. The Hurt Locker – Authentically filmed in the shrapnel littered conditions of the Middle East, the mesmerizing Jeremy Renner is the leader of a bomb disposal team in Baghdad. The title is symbolic of Renner’s obsession with mementos of his past assignments, but the film digs deeper into his paradoxical compulsion to risk-take for the sake of risk-taking – he is a field operative who thrives on the adrenaline. The most haunting final shot at the movies this year.
6. Bruno – Sacha Baron Cohen is the preeminent avante-garde performer of our time, battery-ramming his character into real world encounters and eliciting shocked reactions from onlookers. It’s not the plot that’s important, it’s the anything goes quasi-documentary method that is which veers into what should be called borderline documentary. By turns outrageous and side-splitting, then fascinating and intolerable, this is perhaps the only comedy that could be seen as a puke-your-guts-out rollercoaster ride and ask for seconds. Some people prefer “Borat,” a delightful ignoramus in comparison. Rarer people like me prefer the shattered boundaries of “Bruno.” Forget Sacha, some people in America really do suck.
7. Up in the Air – George Clooney is a termination specialist who travels nearly every day of the year, embracing his roaming lifestyle. He meets Vera Farmiga, also a woman of non-commitments, and he gets personal in an impersonal world. Jason Reitman (“Thank You for Smoking,” “Juno”) is once again the director of a smart, devious comedy that this time taking us all over the map, both literally and thematically. Smoothly crafted, too, a rarity.
8. Precious – For those few people out there who thought last year’s “Juno” was too insincere and irresponsible (I don’t know how you could, it’s only a comedy) here’s an honest heartbreaking reel: a portrait of an obese 16-year old Harlem girl who becomes a mother to two children. Gabourey Sidibe turns the title morose inward character into a revelation, but one of the year’s great performances belongs to Mo’Nique who channels short-fuse fury as the abusive, oppressive mother. Mo’Nique is like early DeNiro great.
9. Julia – Tilda Swinton is a pitiless, self-absorbed alcoholic-cum-tramp who commits the hefty crime of kidnap-and-ransom which snowballs into multiple heftier crimes. The year’s best under-the-radar thriller, although it is more of a human wreckage character study. Let’s retire the unceasing accolades to Meryl Streep. Tilda is the true greatest actress working today.
10. Invictus – A Nelson Mandela biopic could have existed without giving us the marketing hook of rugby, but still, the two have been honorably integrated. And Morgan Freeman delivers one of his great performances and when he talks in graceful aphorisms, you hang on every word. But highest praise to director Clint Eastwood’s awe-inspiring location shooting throughout Africa. Matt Damon performs in utter underappreciated subtlety.
Public Enemies – Contains some of the most ironically beautiful and evocative cinematography of the year, while seducing you into the art deco texture of the 1930’s. Christian Bale is a stiff as the agent on pursuit, but Johnny Depp as John Dillinger is the embodiment of criminal cool, a bank robber who saw recklessness and exhilaration as one and the same.
Stanley Kubrick Visionary Award:
Enter the Void (France) – Why is this title mentioned here and not placed on my top ten list? I think it is certainly one of the top ten films of the year, but I foresee all too well that most people would hate it, so I place it here in its own special class of its own. This French import is filmed in English, shot in Tokyo. Without doubt, this is a risk recommendation. Either you will find it audacious and visionary, or you will find the shots so slow and ponderous in its rhythms that you’d find it tedious. If you hate it, you’d know after about 20 minutes (the only thing I hated was the epilepsy-inducing opening credits). “Void” was made by bad-boy auteur Gaspar Noe, who for one reason I admire because he loves Kubrick (Noe has said to be particularly enamored with “2001: A Space Odyssey”). With this film he’s after the trancelike rhythms of the afterlife. His protagonist is a nobody/loser drug dealer who meets an early departure – if you connect with the film then you might gradually believe that he deserved a better life. The single point-of-view kaleidoscope of his memories intersperse with what he sees as a floating spirit. His lifelong obsession with sex is sad, the way he coalesces with it at the end is transcendent. If you get on Noe’s wavelength he will break open a flood of subconscious, free association thoughts for your behalf.
The Cove; Avatar; (500) Days of Summer; Tyson; A Serious Man; I Love You Man; Antichrist; Thirst (South Korea); Crazy Heart; Fantastic Mr. Fox; A Prophet (France); Mother (South Korea); The Hangover; Moon; Food, Inc.
Best Actor and Supporting Actor: Jeremy Renner in “The Hurt Locker” (pic upper left) and Christoph Waltz in “Inglorious Basterds” (pic upper right)
Best Actress and Supporting Actress: Tilda Swinton in “Julia” (pic upper left) and Mo’Nique in “Precious” (pic upper right)
Best Cameo: Harrison Ford in “Bruno”
Most Surprising Robert DeNiro caliber classic performance: Seth Rogen in “Observe and Report”
Best Montage: “Observe and Report” exhibiting Rogen’s off-medication nihilism followed by the beatdown of hooligan skateboarders.
Best Artistic use of Black & White: The opening sequence in “Antichrist” by Lars von Trier (pic upper left)
Best Musical Interlude: “(500) Days of Summer” (pic upper right)
Best Documentary: “The Cove” (pic upper left)
Best Documentary Runner-Up: “Tyson” (pic upper right)
Best Animated Film: “Fantastic Mr. Fox”
Best Love Scene: Drew Barrymore directed the underwater tableau in “Whip It”
Best Sex Scene: The Korean vampire movie “Thirst” by Chan-Wook Park
Twenty dick jokes too many: “Funny People”
Two Hundred Eyebrow Twitches too many: Kristen Stewart in “New Moon”
Worst Actress: Kristen Stewart in “New Moon” (pic upper left)
Worst Actor: As much as I would like to say Kristen Stewart a second time for “New Moon,” Steve Zahn gave me the yawns in “Management” (pic upper right)
Worst Films of the Year:
1. Miss March – So smutty and juvenile it makes you almost wonder for a moment if Playboy has ever been sexy.
2. Flame & Citron (Denmark) – Danish film replete with the most idiotic WWII clichés in ages. A blockbuster in its native country, this marks proof that the Danish are capable of having just as much bad taste as Americans when it comes to overhyped and shallow action spectacle. Then it takes itself so damn seriously.
3. 17 Again – Pervasively stupid. Characters adamantly act without thinking. Characters react slow when introduced to new surroundings. Characters demonstrate absent memories outside of a two-minute time span.
4. Management – Jennifer Aniston and Steve Zahn comedy that loses its sense of priority. To makes us laugh, to make insightful human observations.
5. Away We Go – John Krasinski and Maya Rudolph are a couple with a baby on the way and obnoxious supporting characters along the way, against director Sam Mendes’ washed-out color palette. The most literate movie on this worst list, yet so dreary it’s soul-crushing.